Bob Rowthorn's essay on immigration and national cohesion last month provoked a big response, mostly - as here - hostileby Nicholas Hildyard / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
At a time when asylum seekers are regularly subject to brutal attacks by those whose racist politics have been fed by irresponsible media reporting, the need for cool heads and sober analysis is urgent. For Prospect to have published Bob Rowthorn’s polemic on the case for Fortress Europe (February 2003) is therefore deeply regrettable.
The article is riddled with inaccuracies. Rowthorn claims that immigration threatens the symbols of British nationhood-and cites the case of a Muslim recruit to the Metropolitan Police (actually he was a traffic warden) who had objected to the police badge because it includes a Christian cross. He then states that the “Metropolitan Police has agreed to produce an alternative badge without the crown.” A five-second internet search would have revealed this to be untrue. The Metropolitan Police has specifically rejected any change to its badge.
Rowthorn is not always straight with statistics either. He argues, for example, that current rates of immigration, if unchecked, will lead to one in seven of the population being “foreign-born” by 2050. Rowthorn’s projections only work, however, if one assumes that 100 per cent of those who come to Britain will remain here. Yet, one need only be resident in Britain for 12 months to be included in his figures. Moreover, as those who work with refugees repeatedly attest, the vast majority of asylum seekers yearn to return home once it is safe for them to do so. Indeed, the law requires them to make such a return journey once the threat of persecution has been lifted.
Rowthorn’s treatment of the concept of “economic migrants” is slanted. His underlying premise is that the majority of those who migrate do so in search of increased prosperity. Statistically, he is right: the largest group of migrants worldwide?some 25m in the mid-1990s?consists of the employees of multinational companies (mostly middle and upper managers) who move from one country to another in search of new business opportunities. Few impediments are put in their way: on the contrary, many companies now make it a condition of the contracts they draw up with national governments that special bureaus should be established to facilitate their employees obtaining the necessary work permits and visas. In Britain, partners and children are invariably granted permission to join executives working for multinational companies; dependants wishing to join poorer migrants are not so welcome.
And it is, of course, the poorer migrants who exercise Rowthorn. Amongst this group, many, like their “executive” counterparts, undoubtedly migrate to take up jobs: they are specifically recruited, often under government-sponsored schemes, to fill low-paid jobs that others in Europe are unwilling to undertake?from nurses to agricultural workers.
But what of those who seek asylum or who enter Europe illegally? Rowthorn offers no evidence that this group is primarily motivated by economics rather than fear. For those who have knowledge of the conditions in which many migrants are forced to live?and the often privileged life they have left?the notion that they have come to Britain purely in search of a better life is not taken seriously.
The government’s own statistics do not bear out the claim that the majority of asylum seekers are “bogus.” Just because an application is turned down does not mean that the applicant is not a genuine asylum seeker. As Amnesty International states: “The home office is systematically under-reporting the number of asylum claims that result in the applicant being allowed to stay in the UK and the frequently quoted headline figure for asylum decisions does not include many cases that are eventually successful.”
The reasons are simple: first, 25 per cent of asylum applications are rejected without any assessment because the paperwork is not submitted in time; second, many of those who are rejected win the right to stay on appeal (but the initial figures are not corrected); and third, the figures only reflect compliance with narrow legalistic interpretations of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Recently, for example, the High Court considered an asylum appeal by Rose Najjemba, a Ugandan woman, who had been forced by soldiers to watch her son being severely beaten and had then been raped by two of the soldiers. The appeal was rejected on the grounds that the rapes Najjemba suffered constituted “simple dreadful lust” but did not amount to “persecution” (to win asylum, one must be able to demonstrate fear of persecution).
The final problem comes from Rowthorn’s shallow view of cultural change. Unless the barriers are put up around Europe, he argues, Europeans will be unable to defend their cultures. The extremism of this view is evident to anyone who gives a moment’s thought to the multiple influences that have shaped and reshaped the notions of European nationhood over the centuries?and which shape and reshape such notions today. What about the computer? Air travel? Television? The rise of the women’s movement? The industrial revolution? Supermarkets? Increased mobility? The car? The trade union movement? Primary and secondary education for all? The welfare state? Woodstock? The Vietnam war? Moreover, has there ever been a single, uniform, uncontested sense of what constitutes “Britain”? And how does Rowthorn’s view that Britain’s sense of nationhood cannot be “protected” without immigration laws square with the historical fact that for the first 200 years of its existence Britain had no immigration controls at all-the first laws being passed amid racist-inspired hysteria over Jewish immigration in the early 1900s?
Rowthorn is right to say that many in Britain feel threatened by immigration. This is hardly surprising given the diet of scaremongering headlines. There is good evidence that where people have the opportunity to hear the stories of refugees?and of the violence that they are fleeing?much of that fear and hostility is overcome. For those of us whose “British identity” places value on tolerance and inclusiveness, this offers a way forward. It also suggests that the proper response to asylum seekers is not to ring Europe in barbed wire but to take steps to prevent the human rights abuses that cause people to flee. Here, the government has much to answer for?and much that it could do. It is, after all, a major supporter (through arms sales and investment) of numerous torturing regimes?from Turkey to China and Saudi Arabia.
I am sure that Rowthorn’s article has stimulated much high-minded debate in policy circles. It is also a strong bet that it will have gone down well with the leadership of the British National Party.
Prospect has a reputation for publishing contrarian views. This is to be applauded. But freedom of expression carries with it a duty to be responsible. As a Prospect board member, I therefore wish to dissociate myself from the views expressed in the article. As the saying goes, “not in my name.”